Broadway and West End smash hit An American in Paris the Musical inspired by the award-winning 1951 film opened to a joyous and s’wonderful reception, with a standing ovation at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane, after a short hiatus of their gala night. Presented by GWB Entertainment and The Australian Ballet this beautiful collaboration of musical theatre and ballet wowed the audience for their Australian Premiere and left them feeling hope in uncertain times and in awe of the breathtaking talent.
This dreamy new musical takes place at the end of World War II during the liberation of Paris. An American GI soldier Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) deliberately misses his train back home to pursue his ambitions and become an artist during the wake of the post-war abstract expressionism movement. Jerry stays and discovers a mysterious French ballerina Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope) that he encounters several times on the streets of Paris.
The show captivated the audience with a gorgeous score by George and Ira Gershwin and world-class choreography by Tony winner Christopher Wheeldon that complemented both the ballet and Broadway 1950s styles, creating the perfect synergy for storytelling.
The enticing love story that emerged with Lise and Jerry was the most heart-warming to witness. Tony-nominated performer from the Royal Ballet Leanne Cope originated the prominent role of Lise Dassin in Paris, on Broadway and the West End. Leanne is an epic and technically gorgeous dancer. She plays a Jewish girl who was kept in hiding during the war and is an aspiring ballerina. She personified Lise brilliantly as the young naïve woman who was trying to find her place in the world post-wartime without her parents. Her French accent was so brilliant and endearing and she illustrated her desire to be free, but also honoured her responsibilities to the family that helped her in the dark times. This was expressed through the poignant and elegant song she beautifully sings, ‘The man I love.’
Her connection with her co-star Robbie Fairchild as Jerry was enchanting and untouchable. This is especially true during the ballet at the conclusion of the production between the two, for the pas de deux. It was very rich with sweeping emotion. Leanne’s presence on stage was unrivalled and made the audience feel warm inside when she jumped into Robbie’s arms. Australia is very lucky to have her perform down under and share her wonderful gifts with us.
Additionally, Broadway and West End’s Tony-nominated star Robbie Fairchild created the iconic role of American soldier Jerry Mulligan, made famous by legendary Gene Kelly. Robbie was a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet and his performance in this show was unsurpassed as he brought his wonderful charisma to the GI turned artist. The audience witnessed his incredible dance talent in ‘I got rhythm’ whilst meeting his new companions Adam and Henri.
Robbie has the innate ability to charm and simultaneously pull in the crowd and his scene partners to his happy-go-lucky world. During the musical number ‘I’ve got Beginner’s Luck’ he crashed Lise’s workplace, the perfume shop and confessed his love for her. It was a hilarious, playful, and chaotic number and Robbie slayed the stage with his undeniable likeability and allure with his incredible voice in the big Broadway number.
Robbie and Leanne’s chemistry on stage is again highlighted during their meet cute musical number ‘Liza.’ This romantic scene was gorgeous to watch as Jerry tried to impress Lise and pursue her as he gave the performance of a lifetime at the Seine River and joined his love interest in a stunning partner routine. Robbie was the ultimate showman and drew the audience in with his infectious spirit and lust for the stage – Australia is very fortunate to have his talent grace our stages.
Ashleigh Rubenach wonderfully embodied the American socialite and entrepreneur, Milo Davenport. She was sensational in this vivacious role, especially with the comedic American/French culture clash at times. She thrived as she showcased her undeniable connection with Robbie and confidently took him under her wing to showcase his artistic talents in the ballet and helped commission a piece starring Lise.
Ashleigh was a bright light of sunshine and cheekiness throughout the production, especially during the delightful number with Robbie ‘Shall we dance’. Her vocals were exquisite and soared through the theatre as she was led by her co-star. On the flipside Ashleigh presented a vulnerable side to Milo when she was hurt by Jerry and expressed that feeling in the song ‘But not for me.’ The bold performer could be likened to a version of Samantha Jones from ‘Sex and the city’ with her class and the ability to make the audience chuckle at her witty one-liners.
The role of Adam was personified by illuminating actor Jonathan Hickey. His character was a veteran and composer who meets fellow soldier Jerry at a café in Paris whilst playing the piano and they quickly became fast friends. Jonathan superbly mastered Adam’s thick New York accent and was the catalyst that led Jerry to Lise at the ballet auditions. Jonathan embodied Adam so sweetly and with passion. This was especially true when he developed a crush on Lise the moment she showed him affection, following his generosity when she was late to class.
Jonathan’s voice was so beautiful and broad in the infamous Gershwin hit ‘S wonderful’ sung by the three leading men – little did they know they were all singing about their love for the same woman. The young performer’s physicality was spot-on. Jonathan was dedicated right down to the limp he had in his leg from a war-torn injury. He demonstrated his breadth of emotion when he wanted Lise to be free to make her own choices about love, and not have to sacrifice her life. It was inspiring to watch him fight for her wellbeing, knowing it wasn’t going to work out as he expressed in ‘But not for me.’ However, it was Jonathan’s incredible tap dancing that illustrated his enthusiasm for dance.
Speaking of tap dancing, the role of Henri Baurel was embodied by irresistible performer Sam Ward. He lived out Henri’s Radio City Music Hall dreams in the spectacular Broadway jazz number ‘Stairway to Paradise’, with Jonathan and the outstanding ensemble members dancing up a storm. Henri was the son of rich French industrialists and was expected to take over the family business, but his secret dream was to be a big song and dance man and perform on extravagant stages.
Sam was fabulous as Henri and had the stunning vocals to match. He was hilarious as he tried to write a letter to Lise instead of proposing to her in person. Sam was present and vulnerable as he defended Lise when Adam discovered Henri and his family hid Lise during the occupation in Paris, and her parents were arrested. He explained they were part of the resistance to help the Jews escape the terrible Nazi regime.
Sam’s interactions with Henri’s parents were particularly comical and prudent, especially in the night club scene when he didn’t expect them to be in the audience, and tried to act like everything was normal. Helen Howard and David Whitney who played Madame and Monsieur Baurel respectively bounced off each other brilliantly as they were surprisingly impressed with their son’s talents. Madame Baurel was reluctant due to their traditional way of thinking, but eventually came around to accept her son’s love for jazz. Their French accents were stellar, and they had the best time on stage together.
This production would be nothing without the staggeringly talented ballet and dance ensemble members. They were insanely exuberant and artistic people. The performers barely left the stage due to the countless song and dance scenes. Quite a few dancers from The Australian Ballet company were included in the mix of incredibly vibrant performers.
At the top of the show there were several historical moments peppered across the stage when the war ended, and the dancers reunited with their lovers one by one after returning from an unforgiving battle. A French girl was found out to be a Nazi collaborator, was abused, lifted and pulled away to her fate. It was emotional to witness as they tried to find their place in Paris during this thrilling first ballet.
‘I got rhythm’ was a musical number with Robbie, Jonathan and Sam that involved the wonderful ensemble. The electricity failed due to the aftermath of the war. They all lit candles and made a catchy sound with the matches and then began a scene of sensational movement and partner swing dancing that enticed you to want to jive with them.
At the conclusion of Act 1 Milo and Jerry attended a costume masquerade party with ‘to die for’ red and black designs by Bob Crowley called the ‘Second Rhapsody.’ This ballet was upbeat and fun, and the dancers performed quirkier moves than traditional ballet as they revealed themselves from under their masks. Another charismatic highlight was the routine ‘Fidgety Feet’, where the ensemble members with Robbie’s lead did a swift chair and feet dance from their seat at the gala night, it was thoroughly entertaining.
Throughout the whole two and a half hour show the ensemble ballerina’s went from pointe shoes to character shoes and back again, which was not an easy feat. The ensemble, swings and understudies are the backbone of this musical and work their tails off as they bring soul and vibrance to the story. You can see the intense love they have for the stage by looking at their delighted expressions.
The ‘An American in Paris’ ballet at the end of act two was the big culmination of everything they have accomplished on stage thus far and was an explosion of colour, technically breathtaking movement and innovation that they executed with ease and passion. It was the most extraordinary moment of the entire performance for the audience. It was non-stop effortless narrative told through magnificent movement, backed by a feast for the ears as well as eyes with the gifted orchestra playing Gershwin’s most treasured work.
The gorgeous ensemble danced through the placement of the set pieces, and the use of doors/panels on stage was so seamless. The projections by 59 Productions of Jerry’s paintings that danced and came to life on the panels gave the musical the ‘wow factor.’
Dimity Azoury and Cameron Holmes are the brilliant alternate leads who perform the roles of Lise and Jerry respectively twice a week. They shone so brightly on opening night in their ensemble tracks, it was so wonderful to have them from The Australian Ballet.
Brisbane was so fortunate to have ‘An American in Paris’ the musical grace QPAC’s Lyric Theatre stage. You do not want to miss the beauty of world-class ballet, dance, vocalists, and performers telling a dream-like love story. It is the shining light to come out of the darkness of the last two years. Let this phenomenon whisk your troubles away and enjoy a ‘s marvellous time at the theatre before it jeté’s off around Australia at the end of January.
All images – Darren Thomas